Thursday, May 31, 2007

So, what am I supposed to look like, again?

I am, by ethnicity, Hispanic (Latina, whatever you want to call it). Technically, I can't say I am Puerto Rican by nationality - we're all considered American citizens. But let's just say, to make it easier, that I'm Puerto Rican by nationality. Racially, however, I'm white.

Race in Latin America is a hodge-podge of different influences. In Puerto Rico, you had the Taínos, the native indigenous population that was wiped out within about 100 years of Christopher Columbus's arrival. However, their racial influence can still be seen today; in fact, my great-grandmother and her siblings all had strong Taíno physical characteristics. Then you have the Caucasians - first hailing from Spain, and eventually coming in from all over Europe. My maternal grandfather's ancestors came directly from Ireland, and their influence on my family is still around today with our skin color and, in a couple of cases, blue eyes. The third link in the racial chain comes from Africa, when the slave trade began and countless Africans were brought over and dispersed throughout the Americas.

After 500-plus years, these three racial influences have mixed and matched to such a degree that you can find everything from milky-white to ebony-black skintones. You have blue eyes, you have brown eyes. There are blondes, there are brunettes. In fact, I used to have a friend growing up who could have been the modern-day embodiment of Botticcelli's Venus. From our first Social Studies class, all the way to our high school Puerto Rican history classes, the concept of three races, one people, is drilled into our heads.

This is why I'm surprised when I hear Puerto Ricans exclaim that so-and-so is not a "typical" Puerto Rican. What is typical? The only typical thing about us is how different we can be from each other.

A couple of times I have heard from Americans "You don't look Puerto Rican!" My standard response is, "What do Puerto Ricans look like?" I never got an answer, but I'm guessing little and brown. Well, I am little, but not brown. In fact, aside from the distant link to the Taínos in my family, I have yet to trace down an ancestor (and I've gone back about 100 years) who wasn't white. Added to that, I don't have much of an accent when I speak English. My first and last names are in English. I don't really fit whatever idea they might have had in their heads.

But I have heard this from Americans far less than I have seen us Puerto Ricans stereoype our own selves. Our contestant for this week's Miss Universe pageant was a tall, skinny, long-legged blonde. People have taken to calling her Paris Hilton. And they had two complaints about her - that she wasn't attractive, and that she didn't represent the typical Puerto Rican woman.

But what if any of these people were to go to another country, and be told that they didn't look like they were from la isla del encanto? They'd scoff, and tell that person that they had no idea what a boricua is supposed to look like.

Our cultural and racial heritage was forged by a sometimes harmonious, sometimes unhappy marriage between three very different cultures. We are taught since we're pequeñitos that this is something to be proud of. And you know what? It is. I think back on all the different people who ended up in Puerto Rico - willingly or not - who little by little helped create the beautiful, vibrant people who inhabit the island today. Our diversity is a testament to the centuries of struggle the island has endured, and also to the centuries of unbridled zeal to create a culture that speaks for us and makes us fiercely proud of the little patch of land that has in so many ways shaped our lives and our memories.

I'm one of those people that some may consider to not represent, physically, the typical Puerto Rican. I will admit that sometimes it gets to me, and makes me feel like I don't belong - like somewhat of an outsider. But when I really think about it, I see that trying to live up to an arbitrary label is not - and never will be - what a "typical Puerto Rican" is all about. And those who insist on narrowing their view of what their people are supposed to look like are ignoring their own history.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Booing the Miss

As any Puerto Rican worth her salt would, I watched the Miss Universe pageant that was held in Mexico City a couple of days ago. Miss Puerto Rico usually makes it through the first elimination round, at least, but this time everyone knew we wouldn't even make it that far. The girl just wasn't that cute or articulate, but another commonly-held opinion among Puerto Ricans was the she "didn't look Puerto Rican". That's something I'd like to address at a later point.

I watched this time around without being emotionally invested in the outcome, which I thought would be boring. Because - again - I am a Puerto Rican, and we all get into it way too much when our own Miss is movin' on up through the competition.

Also, I knew our Miss would be wearing a pirate's outfit for the "typical dress" part of the competition, and I didn't wanna miss that. Turns out, they only showed her from the chest up.

But this year's pageant turned out to be pretty exciting. Millions of eyes widened in horror (and, let's admit it, shocked amusement) when Miss USA Rachel Smith slipped and hit the floor butt-first. Poor girl. Terrible. But she got right back up, preened and smiled her way through the rest of the segment, and made it through to the next round of 10 semi-finalists. Miss Mexico made it through as well, to the crowd's jubilation. However, when the last 5 finalists were announced, including Miss USA, Mexico was not among them.

The crowd booed like crazy. When Miss USA went to answer her "world peace" question, she was booed mercilessly. It wasn't until she greeted Mexico in Spanish that the crowd suddenly applauded and cheered. Easy to please, apparently.

There are some theories as to why she was booed - discontent with the US's immigration policy and with the Iraq situation, mostly. And I'd say those played a factor in the several heckling incidents that Rachel Smith endured during her stay in Mexico. But the other theory, which strikes me as being more accurate in this particular scenario, is simply that Miss USA fell and still made it through, whereas Miss Mexico sashayed without incident and still didn't make it.

The booing incident has been mentioned in American news media, but not really given much thought. It's more of a sidenote to the main story of how this poor girl fell in her evening gown. I thought the booing was in dissapointingly poor taste, so I went off to look for other news sources to see what was being said. I checked out Puerto Rican newspapers Primera Hora and El Nuevo Día, where readers can comment on stories. Overwhelmingly, people were critical of the incident. Then I checked out Mexican newspapers La Reforma and El Universal. La Reforma only let me view headlines because I'm not a subscriber to their print edition, but among them was a quote from Miss Mexico saying that there had been favoritism. El Universal allowed me to read articles, and I found nary a mention of the booing. One article glossed over it, merely mentioning that it had happened and quoting Donald Trump as saying "They were booing our country's policies." Savvy, that one.

But here's the thing. Back in 1993, the pageant was also held in Mexico. Miss Mexico did not make it even through the first round. Miss Puerto Rico, Dayanara Torres, ended up winning the crown. The crowd threw objects - threw objects! - at the two Mexican ladies sitting in the judges' panel. They booed then, too, and then they accused Miss Puerto Rico of being underage and having falsified her papers. The Miss USA contestant that same year also got jeered and heckled. It must have been deja-vu all over again for Dayanara, as she was a judge at this year's pageant.

So I just have one question and one comment for the booers out there: "What the hell?" and "Calm the &^%$ down", respectively. And to the apologists among them - this kind of behavior goes a long way towards inflaming already smoldering tension between Mexicans and Americans. Are we to pretend that this tension doesn't exist? Are we to pretend that the tension is one-sided, and that it isn't sometimes exacerbated by both sides? Just as I'd assume that Americans are savvy enough to understand that not every Mexican individual condones such outright (and misplaced) hostility, I'd also like to assume that Mexicans understand the difference between a country's government and its people. Also, I'd like to assume that those who lose a competition don't throw accusations of favoritism without having something to back it up - otherwise, all you're saying is that you would have been the winner had it not been for all those people who are so clearly out to get you. Victim mentality does not suit a pretty beauty queen.

And who said Miss Universe is just a beauty pageant?

Friday, May 25, 2007

Less salsa, revisited

Watching an episode of The Colbert Report (one of my favorite shows) last night, I caught the segment where he spoke with Pat Buchanan's sister, Bay. She is very adamant that a barrier be built along the US-Mexico border, with two sets of walls and an open, monitored area in the middle, where any trespassers would be easily seen and shot.

Well, okay, the shot part is my addition to this scenario, she didn't come out and actually say that. But given the similarity in design to the Berlin Wall, where trespassers were indeed shot, it doesn't seem too far-fetched of an exaggeration.

Stephen had a big stack of papers on his desk, saying that it was a copy of the currently-proposed legislation that would help illegal immigrants attain legal status. He quipped that it was so big, that he'd hire a Mexican to read it for him.

Bay's response: Good luck finding a Mexican who speaks English.

Fortunately, the crowd booed her.

I have to hand it to Stephen - he exposes some choice xenophobia on his show. For example, The Colbert Report is where I first heard of Fox News's John Gibson's plea to all white Americans to start having more babies, because Hispanics were poised to become the majority demographic in the not too distant future.

Immigration control and reform is a serious issue that all countries have to deal with. But in the US, the faces of immigration control all look like good ol' Bay's. (And John Gibson's - shudder) Ones that are xenophobic, and not afraid to show it on national television.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Less salsa! Less salsa!

I wanted a taco salad today for lunch, so I went to a Mexican food chain restaurant called Qdoba. How do you pronounce that, anyway? I'm never sure. I just say I'm going to get a taco salad, since that's all I ever get there.

I was standing in line, and the way the place works is that it's kind of cafeteria style - you move down the line, telling them what you want. It gets packed and noisy at lunchtime. While waiting for my order to be finished, the Hispanic-looking girl assigned to hooking you up with salsa, sour cream, and guacamole initiates the following exchange with a guy behind me:

Girl: What kind of salsa would you like, sir? Mild, medium, or hot?
Guy: A little bit of the mild.
Girl adds a small amount of salsa to the burrito
Guy: A little less!
Girl: (straining to hear over the din) Excuse me?
Guy: A little less! (sounding impatient)
Girl must have heard lettuce, because she reaches for it.
Guy: (loudly, and in an exaggerated accent) mayyynos! mayyynos saaalsaaaaaa! (less salsa)

I turn around and the guy is shaking his head, as if to say "Can you believe this? Can't even speak English".

This bugs me. Girl can obviously speak English. She has been addressing you in English with no problem at all. Ya think maybe because the place is loud, she just mis-heard you? Why must it be that she can't speak the language, previous successful exchanges in English notwithstanding?

So many times I see people approaching someone who looks Hispanic, and immediately speaking slowly, assuming the person can't speak English. Or even better, employees at the hospital where I work assuming that patients with Hispanic names cannot possibly be on Medicaid (because they're here illegaly, obviously, so they wouldn't qualify).

Many of us are here legally. Many of us speak English. I know that's a kooky notion, but there you have it. It happens.


Boricua en la luna

There is a poem by a Puerto Rican poet named Juan Antonio Corretjer (a poem later made into a song by nueva trova Puerto Rican musician Roy Brown) called Boricua en la luna. Rather unpoetically translated, it means "Puerto Rican on the moon".

Puerto Ricans are not especially known for their affinity towards sci-fi, so it's not really a Robert Heinlein-style homage to some boricua who ended up as a guinea pig colonizer of the first lunar settlements. Although, seeing as we were actively urged by our governor back in the 50's to emigrate to the States, and we enthusiastically took his advice (you can thank us for that anytime), we might be actively urged to colonize the moon if that were ever to actually become a possibility. "There's too many of you guys here - please, feel free to seek your fortune in the New New World".

What it refers to is to someone who is born in the States, but is of Puerto Rican ancestry. It specifically references those very same people who came to the States looking for a better life - a job, a place to live, an opportunity to be more that just poor and barely able to scrape by - and ended up having children there. They came straight from Puerto Rico, bringing with them the only culture and way of life they knew, and instilled it into their children. In this poem, he talks of a child born in NYC who eventually lost those parents and was raised by his grandfather, the way any native islander would raise their kids. Even though he does not live in Puerto Rico, and wasn't even born there, he fiercely and adamantly identifies himself as a Puerto Rican.

I think nowadays, years after the so-called Puerto Rican Diaspora which started at the turn of the 20th century but reached an apex in the 1940's and 1950's, we have a modern-day boricua en la luna. This Puerto Rican was born and raised in Puerto Rico, and reached a point in early adulthood, or even sometime later, when he or she decided that the economy still wasn't going to allow them to prosper, and that job opportunities were looking better and better across the ocean. They emigrated, settled in the states - some with their Puerto Rican significant others, others marrying or settling down with Americans who really did not know what they were in for. I say that jokingly, with much appreciation for how wonderful Puerto Rican culture is and yet how different it must seem to those American spouses, because I am part of this new wave of expatriated Puerto Ricans.

I moved to New York City in 1993, as a freshman student attending New York University. During my college years I had the luxury of being able to travel for free on my flight-attendant dad's passes - not to mention the other luxury of large blocks of free time. I miss college. Anyway, I'd shuttle back and forth between PR and NYC, and even though I felt thoroughly settled into life in NYC, I was able to go back home and be surrounded by the familiar sounds, smells, and sights of my childhood. In other words, that link to my culture was never far away. Also, you can't throw a plantain in NYC without hitting a Puerto Rican, so I also felt like I had a link to home, away from home, to a certain degree.

After almost 5 years in NYC, I decided to move on to greener and less concrete-ish pastures. I ended up in Portland, Oregon - which, if you haven't guessed, isn't exactly Puerto Rico, USA. The Hispanic population is growing at a rapid pace, however, the main demographic is Mexican and Central American. If you threw a plantain in Portland, you'd be more likely to hit a white hipster in thick black glasses and skinny pants, listening to The Decembrists on his iPod, and who would probably lecture you on how uncool it is to throw stuff as he wanders into a bar for a pint of PBR.

I actually really like Portland. It's beautiful, for one. For two, its residents really do care about things like the environment and activism. I'm not exactly a paragon of activism virtue, but I care about stuff. And I, like recycle, and take the bus to work. I keep up on the news and shit. If I were interested in becoming way more active in stuff like that, then this town would afford me those opportunities.

But this town is really far away from where I grew up, and where my family is. Even with a Hispanic presence, their backgrounds are very different from mine. They don't share my accent, my musical tastes, my rabid love of plantains. Sometimes it's isolating. I'm a fair-skinned Hispanic who speaks English without an accent and whose name is in English - I pass easily as a regular, run of the mill whitey. Your average Hispanic won't see me and think of me as "one of them" unless I speak Spanish to them. Conversely, once I meet someone who is not Hispanic and my more Puerto Rican characteristics come out (talking and laughing kinda loudly, using more hand gestures than other people would consider normal or perhaps even polite, getting really invested in a topic and getting kind of intense), it's clear that I'm not "one of them" either. Even though people here care about social and environmental issues, their demeanor is still quite laid-back - which means someone like me, who gets pretty passionate about whatever it is I am interested in at the moment - can come across as weird, or, hell, too passionate. It can make people uncomfortable.

So my time here has been a way for me to be proud that I can bridge two cultures, and being able to observe them from two different viewpoints. But its also been a time of reflection on what it means to inhabit two cultures - sometimes it's lonely, sometimes I feel like a traitor to my island for having left, and sometimes it leaves me feeling like I don't have anyone to talk to who can, if not commiserate, at least have the ability to understand. And that's why I'm starting this blog, because I have to let it all out somewhere.